Hillier And Bartley: We'll Take Manhattan

MARC BY MARC JACOBS may be closing, but many questions remain about the future of the two Brits at the helm of the label. For the September 2014 issue of Vogue, Katie Hillier and Luella Bartley talked to Sarah Harris ahead of their second Marc By Marc Jacobs show about swapping East End club nights for dawn gym sessions in Manhattan as they took charge of the New York brand.

Katie Hillier and Luella Bartley have become very good at gathering loyal fans. They've spent years honing playful, personality-packed ready-to-wear, irreverent accessories and a mountain of have-to-have bags. Right now, though, on the sixth floor of Marc Jacobs HQ, a nondescript office block on the corner of New York City's Broadway and Spring, Katie is collecting a few more admirers - for reasons other than those, and other than the hit Marc by Marc Jacobs collection she presented alongside Luella this season. She is topless and facing the huge office windows, trying on (and taking off) clothes, unaware that a throng of suits from the block opposite have clocked her.

"They liked what they saw!" eggs on a skirtless Luella, long-term collaborator/cohort/all-round ally, having shimmied her way out of a PVC pencil number, dismissing it as "too sexy" (Luella doesn't do sexy). Besides, PVC and the city's stifling 33-degree heatwave don't make for a happy pairing. Meanwhile, Katie has turned puce and scuttles to the opposite side of the room - the side without floor-to-ceiling windows.

Despite the occasional mishap that comes with working in an office plonked on a grid of crowded high-rises, these two Londoners are enjoying a transatlantic working life that sees them spending up to 14 days of the month in New York. For starters, they're drinking green juice and have taken to daily 6am gym sessions at Equinox like ducks to water. Luella, 41, runs on the treadmill; Katie, 40, works the bikes. Their exercise regime used to revolve around dancing till the small hours in the newest, buzziest east London nightclub. "We've grown up," shrugs Katie.

Having said that, they still have the disposition of a couple of teenagers - more tomboy than girlish - who have the ability to finish off each other's sentences and who can't quite believe they've been hired by the big league: Katie as creative director, and Luella as womenswear design director. And like any youngster offered a top gig, the first call would be to her best pal. "As soon as I was offered the position, my immediate thought was, 'I need to speak to Luella.' I called her and said, 'Do you want to do this?' Because I didn't want to do it unless she came," explains Katie. "I was excited and terrified at the same time - it's quite a big deal, isn't it? But that's what I went to college for," she continues, "to be the creative director of a brand. And anyway, I've always been of that mindset that when things are really scary you need to just get on and do it."

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Notwithstanding the success of the label (Marc by Marc Jacobs accounts for up to 70 per cent of the business of Marc Jacobs International, a figure that signifies considerable pressure), its gloss had faded in recent seasons. "What worked at the beginning didn't necessarily work some 10 years on," admits Katie, who has advised as an accessories consultant for Marc Jacobs for 12 years. "We had a lot of success with a lot of commercial pieces, but there was a link missing between those commercial collections and what the fashion crowd saw on the runways." She elaborates: "When the label launched in 2001, not as many people were privy to what was on the catwalk, but now everyone is, and so the disconnect between the two became evident; they were disjointed - neither was bad, but they didn't feel like one thing, and then all of a sudden the identity of a brand loses some of its strength."

A look from the duo's Marc By Marc Jacobs debut in February 2014

Thus the starting point wasn't so much about thinking up a collection, it was more about re-establishing a brand - their debut, they decided, would be a collection that would shape the label for years to come, and so they set about delving into who the "Marc girl" is. "The best brands - whether you like them or not - are the ones where you know exactly who that woman is," explains Luella. A glance at a board with handwritten buzzwords sets the tone: spirited, wry and charming are circled among a list that includes mischievous, nonchalant, original, liberated, rebellious, brave and narky. "That took quite a lot of translating in the US," laughs Katie. "Literally no one knew what narky meant…"

The second Marc By Marc Jacobs collection by Katie Hillier and Luella Bartley

Both fans of the label from its inception, they reminisced about the bestsellers they used to be desperate to buy - those jeans, that canvas jacket. "The whole thing about what Marc by Marc was, when it started, was this spirit," says Katie. "It was the coolest thing out there at that time - but not so cool that you couldn't be a part of it. It was never elitist. Anyone could go to the store and find something - it was a tribe, yes, but everyone could be part of it." Adds Luella, "The most important thing for this collection was to define a character that women can identify with and say, 'I know who that is, I'd like to be her,' and then provide that aspiration with very easy-to-wear clothes."

Their youth-centric debut earlier this year had a tough, zinging new attitude. Models stormed out and gathered on podiums. Dressed in clothes dripping in cool, they appeared like girl gangs who hang around skate parks. A tribe so convincing, it looked as if they had laid their bikes down outside and popped in to the show space for mild amusement - or, better still, to contemplate how well it might house a half-pipe. Jeans and racing suits plastered in MBMJ logos, fighting ninjas and other transfers that BMXers would identify with, such as Bunny Hop (a trick that launches the bike into midair, since you're curious) all read like a new-wave manifesto (cleverly, they enlisted the talents of skatewear designer Fergus Purcell for these graphics). Their long-sleeved dresses in glossy asphalt and natty grey tailoring with red and blue facing were equally compelling; some were fuelled with bandanas streaming with chains (the handiwork of Fergus and Judy Blame) and all were grounded in some seriously sturdy footwear; a fashion riff on a motocross boot. It was feisty, with no holds barred. "We both felt like there was an area of fashion that was being under-served. Something that spoke to women who are active, strong, confident, a little bit boyish," says Luella. "We're not interested in clothes you can't move in."

Theirs is a friendship that goes back to 1999, when Katie Grand, a mutual friend, introduced them. They met in a pub on Chelsea's Flood Street, had a glass of wine and then went to haberdashery store VV Rouleaux to buy ribbons. The following Monday, Katie started working for Luella on her eponymous start-up label. The two of them plus one pattern cutter did everything together. But after several years of success - the Luella for Mulberry Gisele bag, a flagship store on Mayfair's Brook Street and a string of accolades, including Designer of the Year in 2008 - Luella ceased trading in November 2009 after a financial backer pulled investment. She took a four-year break from fashion and relocated to Cornwall, where she rode horses and wrote a book about British style. "I found it really valuable to step out for a bit. It was good to get some perspective back," she recalls. Surely she was tempted by offers that came her way? "Yes, and some of them felt like the right fit, but I was living in Cornwall; I was refusing jobs that I really wanted to do but that's where I was at that point in my life - and I really wanted to be with my kids. Before then, when they were really young, I was working day and night, and it wasn't an easy period because it was towards the end of Luella, and so when that finished I wanted to give them those years - and for me, too."

Saying no to this job, however, was never an option. "Marc is a big influence on most designers of our generation, so to be able to work with him in any capacity is pretty amazing. He can see something and twist it slightly and it comes to light - he's very clever like that," explains Luella. He may no longer be involved in the day-to-day running of things but he continues to oversee the creative direction. "I remember going through the autumn/winter 2014 collection with him and he dropped one look - that's all he did - but he was absolutely right. It made the show." Jacobs sat front row, next to Sofia Coppola, and, like a proud father, stood to applaud as they took their bow.

New York suits them, but their lives are still very much rooted in London; Katie lives in Marylebone with her partner, Savile Row tailor Patrick Grant, and Luella in Bloomsbury with her fashion-photographer husband David Sims and their three children Kip, 11, Stevie, nine, and Ned, seven (the interview is briefly interrupted while Luella makes a quick call home before they all go to bed). The core Marc by Marc Jacobs design team - comprising five, including Hillier and Bartley - is based in east London's Rochelle School, although if Luella has anything to do with it they will likely decamp to her Cornish home during the summer. The working ratio is generally three weeks in London followed by two in New York, but one gets the feeling they run things very much on their own terms.

When in London, Katie also runs a whole other studio and a team of eight, who work alongside her on Hillier, her own fine-jewellery and hair-accessory line, in addition to various consulting projects, most notably handbags. "When I accepted this job, it never crossed my mind to close that design office. I have a loyalty to those colleagues and to my clients. Although," she confesses, "I was a bit worried that those clients wouldn't like it - after all, it is maybe a bit weird, being the creative director of another company - and what, now they're going to have a chat with me about their handbags?"

"Yes, please," would be the sensible answer.

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